26 – Underage Drinking Laws: Saving Lives in Our Communities

Underage Drinking

August 5, 2014 | Posted in Podcast Episodes, Underage Drinking

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President Reagan signing the NMDAA

President Reagan signing the NMDAA

Thirty years ago President Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act (NMDAA) that required states to make 21 as the minimum age for purchasing or public possessing alcohol. As a result all 50 states now have 21 as the minimum drinking age. Occasionally, there are efforts made to reduce the drinking age to 18, arguing that teens and college students are still drinking, thus the law is a failure.

The NMDAA Saving Lives on our Highways

This episode and the previous one are examining the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. Part one (Episode 25) examined the law’s purpose and asked if has it been successful in achieving that goal.   Part two considers if the law has had any additional benefits and what can be done about underage drinking. To answer that question I speak with Dr. Ralph Hingson, Director of the Epidemiology and Prevention Research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

Underage Drinking

Dr. Ralph Hingson

The NMDAA was initially passed to save lives on our roads and highways, and it has been extremely successful in that effort. It is estimated that almost 30,000 lives have been saved because of the requirement to be 21 years old to drink alcohol. Dr. Hingson notes that the estimate of lives saved is most likely very conservative.

Since the early 1980s, there has been a 77% decline in drunk driving deaths for drivers ages 16 to 20. No other age group has had a greater improvement. Dr. Hingson declared that the NMDAA is a “success story of major consequence.”

It has also had a positive impact in matters other than traffic safety. Underage drinking is associated with a variety of significant problems, including: homicides, suicides, risky sexual behavior and poor academic performance. By reducing the number of teens drinking alcohol, these problems have also been reduced.

Lowering the Drinking Age is not the Answer

During our discussion, Dr. Hingson examines the reasons given for reducing the underage drinking law and refutes each claim. The first argument made is that the current age requirement drives teens to drink “underground” and leads teens to drink explosive amounts of alcohol. Supposedly, if the drinking age were lower, then teens wouldn’t be looking for hidden places to drink and they would drink responsibly. However, the research demonstrates that those individuals who are ages 21-24 and are legal to drink, are actually consuming greater quantities of alcohol, 10-20 drinks on an occassion. Thus it is the legal drinkers who are drinking the extreme quantities of alcohol, not the teens for who it is illegal.

A second argument raised is that we should follow Europe’s example on drinking age laws and tolerance since European countries supposedly have fewer issues with drinking. But the research says otherwise. European youth drink more alcohol than here in the Untied States, and there is a higher proportion of those who drink to intoxication. Also of concern, when European countries are compared to other regions of the world, Europe has the highest per capita of alcohol consumption, the highest proportion of alcohol dependence and the highest rate of deaths due to alcohol misuse. When looking at all of the measures used to consider this issue, Dr. Hingson stated that Europe is not a model to emulate. In actuality, it is the U.S. that should be considered a role model for other countries when considering an alcohol policy and teens.

Underage Drinking

Teens Drinking in Europe

The NMDAA Saving Lives in Our Communities

The research on underage drinking demonstrates that the earlier a person starts to drink, the greater the likelihood the person will become alcohol dependent at some point in his or her life. Over 40% of the youth who start drinking at age 14 or younger will become alcohol dependent; versus 10% of those who become dependent when they start drinking at age 21 or later.

It is also noteworthy that after New Zealand reduced its minimum drinking age from 20 to 18, there was a significant increase in alcohol-related crashes among 15-19 year olds.  The increase in drinking by those 18-19 years old was followed by an increase by 16-17 years old even though it was still illegal for the younger ages.

Other scientific research discovered after the NMDAA was passed also supports the law’s continuation.  Thanks to technological advances involving brain scans, we now know that even at 21 the brain is still developing. There are important changes occurring in brain development during the teenage years.  Alcohol retards these changes, and has both short- and long-term effects, including damage to:

  • Memories
  • Learning capabilities
  • Decision–making process, and
  • Reasoning ability

Battling Underage Drinking

Underage drinking is definitely a problem

Underage drinking is definitely a problem

While there is no question that underage drinking is an issue, the answer is not to lower the age, the answer is a multi-level approach that targets: individuals, families, and schools. It is important to note that web-based interventions have also shown some promise.

Looking at the individual efforts, having health care professionals to provide screening and brief counseling has been found highly effective, including when it is done at college. Dr. Hingson recommends that all college students who use the health care services should be screened and receive brief counseling, and that the health care professionals take a more proactive role when dealing with young people. Many times a doctor or nurse learns that a teen is drinking or smoking – even though it is illegal – and they don’ provide health care advice on these issues. The research indicates that when these professionals take action, there is a recognized benefit.

In considering the family influence, Dr. Hingson pointed out that parents probably have the strongest influence on preventing underage drinking. If parents binge drink, their children are very likely to do so. Parental permission of alcohol use generally leads to greater incidents of alcohol use by their teens, increased binge drinking and higher rates of alcohol problems.

On the flip side, parents who talk with their children, and provide good role models can have a significant impact on whether or not their children drink alcohol before the age of 21. This is true even after leaving home for college.

Tips for Parents

Alcohol Conversation

Parents can make a difference

Dr. Hingson provided some important tips for parents and underage drinking.

  • You should model behavior that children can (and will) follow. If you drink heavily then your children are more likely to do so. The reverse can be true as well.
  • You need to start talking with your children about alcohol and have clear and consistent rules, and start monitoring them as early as possible.
  • Consider what you can collectively do at the community level. Don’t oppose the enforcement of underage drinking laws, support the laws, and collectively monitor where your children are and who their friends are and if they are going to parties where alcohol is available.
  • You should not provide alcohol to children; it is linked to heavier drinking patterns and greater developmental problems.

Parents should also consider getting involved with the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA). CADCA has 5,000 community coalitions across the United States that focuses on underage drinking and other drug issues.

This is an issue that is being looked at in other countries as well. Dr. Hingson is a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) Coordinating Council focusing on ways to implement WHO’s global strategy plan to reduce the harmful effects of alcohol. But here in the United States, we know from the research that the National Minimum Drinking Age Act has saved lives on our roads and in our communities. It is a law that works.

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25 – Underage Drinking Laws: Saving Lives on Our Highways

August 1, 2014 | Posted in Podcast Episodes, Underage Drinking

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President Reagan signing the NMDAA

President Reagan signing the NMDAA

Have the Underage Drinking Laws Made a Difference?

Thirty years ago President Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act (NMDAA) that required states to make 21 as the minimum age for purchasing or public possessing alcohol. As a result all 50 states now have 21 as the minimum drinking age. Occasionally, there are efforts made to reduce the drinking age to 18, arguing that teens and college students are still drinking, thus the law is a failure.

This episode and the one following will be a two-part examination of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. Part one will examine the reason the law was passed and ask if has it been successful in light of that purpose. Part two will consider if the law has had any additional benefits and what can be done about the issue of underage drinking.

In this episode, I will be speaking with three different individuals about the initial reason for the law. The three people are:

  • Bill Bronrott, currently the Deputy Administrator for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), played an important role in the battle against drunk driving and the National Minimum Drinking Age Act.
  • Candace Lightner, President of We Save Lives.org was the founder of Mother’s Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and a strong proponent for this law because of the lives it would save on our highways.
  • Bill Morrison, a retired officer from Montgomery County Police Department in Maryland. During his career, Bill saw a number of problems caused by underage drinking and developed a plan to combat it.

Drunk Driving: Starting A National Discussion

When looking at the reason for the NMDAA, it is important to remember in the early 1980s the fight against drunk driving was in its infancy. MADD was established in 1980, back at a time when someone being killed by a drunk driver was tragic, but it was just one of “those things.” Candace Lightner’s daughter Cari, was killed by a repeat drunk driver and she was told by police that it was unlikely her daughter’s killer would see any jail time, let alone prison.

In the 1980s, the battle against DUI was just starting

In the 1980s, the battle against DUI was just starting

It was during this time that the battle to end drunk driving really started. One of the steps taken was by President Reagan to establish a Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving. The Commission’s purpose was to examine the issue of drunk driving and make appropriate recommendations to combat this deadly issue. The Commission issued a final report one year later with a number of recommendations. Passing national legislation to make the drinking age 21 was the Commission’s number one priority. Already being discussed because of “blood borders,” the recommendation by the Commission helped push the issue to the forefront.

In the early 80’s, blood borders were becoming all too common. Mr. Bronrott and Ms. Lightner both describe blood borders as a horrific consequence of teens driving across state borders where the drinking age was lower, become drunk, and then while trying to drive home, crash and die. Teens were literally dying to get their alcohol.

In fact, drunk driving was the number one cause of death for teens at this time. It was time to end these blood borders and save lives. Efforts had been made on a state-by-state level, however, that proved ineffectual; a national push was required.

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act is Passed

However, like any legislation, getting the Commission’s recommendation passed was not a simple thing. There were competing interest on this issue and they were all speaking with senators and congressmen. Ms. Lightner met with them, talking about her daughter’s death and her desire to stop future deaths.

Underage Drinking

The NMDAA was one of the fastest bills passed by Congress at the time.

Armed with a map of the United States showing the blood borders and followed by the media, Ms. Lightner meet with a number of legislators, including then Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neil. After sharing her story and why the minimum drinking age act was important, Speaker O’Neil told his legislative aide to: ‘get her what she wants.’

The law was passed within a year of the commission’s recommendations, and it is considered one of the fastest bills to successfully get through Congress.

At the signing President Reagan declared:

This problem is bigger than the individual States. It’s a grave national problem, and it touches all our lives. With the problem so clear-cut and the proven solution at hand, we have no misgiving about this judicious use of Federal power. I’m convinced that it will help persuade State legislators to act in the national interest to save our children’s lives, by raising the drinking age to 21 across the country.

Underage Drinking in Today’s Society

Of course, it is clear that underage drinking still happens. Teens are finding ways to obtain alcohol, some with fake identification, some at underground parties, and even others through their parents, either with a parent’s consent or just by taking the alcohol from the cabinet.

Underage drinking is definitely a problem, and parents can be both part of the problem and part of the solution. Some parents believe that if they let their teen drink at home, then they know the child is safe. It is the belief that if I as a parent did it while a teen, how can I not allow my child to do it.   However, we now know more from the science, and things are different in today’s culture when compared to the way it was 20 and 30 years ago.

Underage drinking is definitely a problem

Underage drinking is definitely a problem

Officer Morrison noted that today’s teens are driving in their own car to parties where hard alcohol is being served, drinking a significant amount more alcohol and not worrying about others at the party. At underage drinking parties, he routinely saw teens at extreme BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) levels. He also observed an indifference with today’s teens that when someone is drunk, or maybe trying to drive home, or even being sexually assaulted they simply walk on by. It is considered to be inconvenient to respond or help out.

As noted by Officer Morrison, he has seen too many “good kids who made poor decisions” because of alcohol, and he has made too many death notifications where a teen has driven drunk and killed himself.

His strongest message is for the parents. As a parent, you must become more proactive; show you care about your children, but also hold your children responsible. Take the time to ask questions when your teen is going out and then wait up for them to come home and use all of your senses to learn what is happening. You need to remember that your children will try to push the envelope, and it is part of your job to set boundaries and keep your children safe.

One of the Most Effective Traffic Safety Laws on the Books

Efforts to reduce the minimum drinking age occasionally happen. Are there issues with underage drinking? Of course there are, but there exists other ways to address this issue. To learn about additional benefits of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act and discover some of those ways to address underage drinking, check out Part Two of this discussion.

The NMDAA has saved thousands of lives.

The NMDAA has saved tens of thousands of lives.

In the meantime, this law has saved tens of thousands of lives on our roads. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the minimum drinking age laws have saved 29,292 lives and some consider that number conservative. The National Minimum Drinking Age Act was proposed as a traffic safety bill, and as a traffic safety law, it has lived up to its promise. 30 years later the number of lives saved on our roads is staggering, and it is still happening. Thousands of people are alive today because of this law.

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Research:

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Bill Bronrott Talks about the Benefits of the NMDAA

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